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College presidents broaden curriculums, but put `learning' first

In the wake of recent critical reports, many colleges are putting fresh emphasis on basic courses and strengthened liberal arts offerings. But some educators and college presidents quizzed by the Monitor at the American Association for Higher Education meeting in Chicago this week say they are concerned that the rush to new requirements could shift attention away from the all-important question of whether or not students are learning.

Sarah Lawrence president Alice Ilchman said: ``Students learn what they want to learn.''

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And Richard Rosser, president of DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., noted: ``We're getting students today who have almost no knowledge of the Bible, who've never heard of the Federalist papers, and who've never read any Shakespeare.''

But like most college presidents these days, Mr. Rosser is not blaming the high schools. He and many of his colleagues pin direct responsibility on their own relaxation of course requirements in the 1960s and '70s and the proliferation of specialized and trendy courses.

``In a sense we got very self-indulgent,'' observes Sarah Lawrence president Ilchman.``We acted in our expectations as if it didn't matter what you as a student came in with in preparation or what you left with.''

The Association of American Colleges issued a report last month said the curriculum at many colleges is in a state of ``disarray'' and ``incoherence.'' That study, and others issued by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Higher Education over the last six months, call, in effect, for a return to the ``basics.'' They urge strengthening of courses in the liberal arts and humanities and renewed commitment to the ``whole'' curriculum.

A number of college leaders insist they saw this now well-documented problem coming and made the changes well before the reports came out.

Kent State University president Michael Schwartz says his institution began two years ago to require all students to take a number of courses in the arts and sciences and recently eliminated bachelor's degrees in general speech and social work. Did the faculty fight it? ``No, they realize there's a problem -- they know we can't be all things to all people,'' says Dr. Schwartz.

Bradford College in Massachusetts began requiring students to take a general education core curriculum two years ago. The college also stressed development of communications skills to help students become ``bilingual'' in the ``human language'' of words and numbers and offered interdisciplinary liberal arts majors. Bradford president Michael Levine insists the focus on quality as opposed to mere ``survival,'' a common topic among many small colleges a few years ago, has paid off in increased funds from alumni and foundations and a larger pool of student and faculty applications.

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But most college leaders also insist that changed requirements -- or even shifts in course content -- may not make the crucial difference in producing a ``broadly educated'' student. ``There really is no agreement across the country on what's meant by that,'' says DePauw president Rosser.

``It can be misleading to think requirements, which are technical things, meet the purpose of education,'' says Dr. Ilchman. ``I'm not a `great books' person. I don't think the common curriculum is as important as the process of inquiry -- learning how to ask a question and how to sustain an argument. . . . And I think the students' interest is as important as what we think they should learn. Students learn what they want to learn.''

``This idea that you need a little Chaucer and a few other things thrown in and then you're `humanized' is patently not true,'' agrees Alexander Astin, president of the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles.``It's critical thinking and the ability to listen -- the most neglected skill in academia -- and to speak and write which are important. The bottom line is learning.

``Higher education is going to be in trouble as long as it pretends educational objectives can be met through course requirements.''

A story about US colleges on Page 4 of Wednesday's paper incorrectly stated the name of the president of Bradford College in Massachusetts. He is Dr. Arthur E. Levine. The Monitor regrets the error.

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